I was surprised and saddened when I learned about the death of Win Tin on April 21. The last time I met him in mid-2013, he was still in trouble with the Home Affairs authorities as they wanted him to give back his blue jail uniform, which he decided to keep as a form of protest against his nearly two-decade long detention as a political prisoner.
I told him that if they continued with the bullying he could give me the uniform and I would send it to the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.
The first time I met Win Tin was at Insein Prison in Rangoon in June 1999, when I was working as the head of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Myanmar. In May that year, the ICRC had, after many attempts, finally received approval of the military regime to visit political prisoners—a decision that would be reversed again in 2005.
In 1999, Win Tin was being kept incommunicado in a small cell with a very small window and an iron door. In front of his cell there was a small hole in the roof through which he could see the sky once a day for about 30 minutes; another wooden door blocked any further view.
That day we talked for about three hours about all sorts of things. I was the only visitor he had received in almost 10 years of incarceration, apart from a brief, well-choreographed visit of US Senator Bill Richardson, so I thought he had the full right to be very talkative.
The next morning, I asked the chief of Insein Prison to let me go back to see Win Tin but he refused, saying that I had already spent three hours with him during which we probably talked about more than just the conditions of his detention.
So I told him that the ICRC visit was suspended until I had further access to Win Tin. I said it was a breach of our tacit agreement to not to let us, ICRC delegates, meet a prisoner in a situation in which it was necessary. It took two hours of discussion until I finally got the green light to go and meet him again. In all likelihood, the decision to grant me permission came from the highest levels in the Military Intelligence.
So we met again and decided to walk around the compound, passing in front of other cells where Win Tin could softly say a few words to other prisoners who were blocked from view behind their cell doors. Then we sat on a bench and I told him that he could write a message to one of his relatives if he wished and the Red Cross would pass it on. He mentioned an adoptive daughter living in Australia, so I gave him a form and a pen.
He took the pen and tried to write but he had lost his ability to because of the long years of being prevented from writing; he tried again and again but he couldn’t. Finally, he asked me to write the message, which he dictated. He was disturbed by that situation. How could it be that he, a journalist, could not write anymore?
Three months later, I went to see him again at the same cell at Insein Prison. I brought him a letter of his adopted daughter and a picture of her.
The first thing he did was to show me that he had managed to recover his ability to write; he was so happy. He said that he felt better because of the ICRC’s presence and the fact that political prisoners could reestablish a link with the outside world and feel that they were no longer forgotten. He said that he felt stronger in pursuing his struggle for democracy and against tyranny.
After that I met him two more times in prison. On each occasion, I felt it was a privilege to meet such a strong, unique personality.
Leon de Riedmatten served as head of ICRC Delegation in Myanmar from January 1999 until August 2000. He also served as interim Liaison Officer in Myanmar for the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.